Christmas Drinking: In Search of Tom & Jerry

Anne Zimmerman documents one man's quest to recreate a 19th-century rum and brandy-soaked classic, perfect recipe included.

tom and jerry cocktail

We all have those friends who we never talk to, never see, but manage (somehow) to never lose touch with. Zachary is one of those friends. We went to high school together in Utah. I was prissy and popular; he was laconic and disdainful of the vapid social hierarchy. We were yearbook editors; that’s how we became friends.

I could go on, tell you about the meals we haven’t shared and the drinks we never found time to go out for. But let’s cut to the chase. This is a man in search of something important: the Tom & Jerry—a frothy alcoholic confection that’s similar to eggnog but isn’t.

In numerous accounts, Professor Jerry Thomas claims its conception in 1847, having been quoted as naming it after himself and “two small white mice” he kept as pets called, of course, Tom and Jerry. However, reports of the warm, egg-based nog have been documented in America since the 1820s. And, in numerous accounts, it’s credited to English author Pierce Egan, who penned a play of the same name in 1821.

But according to Dave Wondrich, “The Pierce Egan story is horseshit, as of course is Jerry Thomas’s claim. The drink was around in Boston before he was born; there’s a description of it from 1826, IIRC. And there’s no evidence of it in England that early. Thomas did promote it quite a bit, but its popularity was widespread and many a person made it who had never heard of the Professor.” So while the drink’s origins are at best foggy, its main ingredients are, thankfully, less of a subject of debate. Made from a sugary, yolky base, the drink is spiced with vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice and cloves and then spiked with rum and brandy. At the height of its popularity, the drink was ladled out of kitschy Tom & Jerry’s punchbowls into glass mugs, the kind you might find in Grandma’s basement or at a garage sale.

Each year, for as long as Zachary can remember, his father bought creamy Tom & Jerry batter from the deli at a local grocery store. He ferried some to the family in Price and kept some for himself. His drink recipe was simple. Take a spoonful of batter. Add milk. Add bourbon or spiced rum. Microwave. Maybe a dash of nutmeg on the top, if you have time to look for the shaker. Pour generously into a tall mug, the kind that’s only used once a year, so that when placed on the counter next to a bottle of bourbon it seems to define the holiday season. Enjoy the tradition.

He tells me this part apologetically, as if he knows I might judge him. But I don’t. The things that tie us to the people who are important to us can be hard to measure. There are big things: road trips, weddings, college, kids. But there are little things too: words, gestures. And for many, drinks shared. That the perfect Tom & Jerry might be made with sub-par ingredients matters less than the memories conjured as bourbon is poured into thick sweet batter, warmed and carefully mixed.

Except that a few years ago the batter became harder to find. Then Zachary’s Dad passed away unexpectedly. No Dad, meant no Tom & Jerry’s for the holidays.

After a couple of years without the drink, Zachary decided to restore the tradition. And that’s when—as he puts it—“the chase started.” He called every grocery store in the Salt Lake Valley. No one had heard of the drink and no one had a recipe. Perhaps this shouldn’t have been surprising. After all, he was calling every grocery store in an dominantly alcohol-abstinent part of Utah. But still. It seemed like someone should know about the Tom & Jerry.

Next he tried to order the pre-packaged batter, but no one he asked could find it, not even the specialty grocery or the liquor stores. During this time, two of Zachary’s cousins also tried making their own Tom & Jerry’s mix. But it never turned out. It was too eggy, too thick, just not right.

There was a collective, startling revelation. Did stale eggs and non-dairy creamer create their family’s iconic holiday drink? Did they actually prefer generic, self-stabilized batter from the grocery deli counter to something homemade?

He tells me this part apologetically, as if he knows I might judge him. But I don’t. The things that tie us to the people who are important to us can be hard to measure. There are big things: road trips, weddings, college, kids. But there are little things too: words, gestures. And for many, drinks shared. That the perfect Tom & Jerry might be made with sub-par ingredients matters less than the memories conjured as bourbon is poured into thick sweet batter, warmed and carefully mixed.

This tale ends on a happy note. Under close and repeated questioning, a recently retired deli worker at the local grocery store gave Zachary a recipe. Now every Thanksgiving weekend, he calls the deli counter and asks them to make it. Sometimes he has to give them the recipe again, but they know why he’s calling.

So that’s it, I guess. Maybe Zachary doesn’t have the greatest Tom & Jerry recipe ever created but he has one that’s good enough for now. And on Christmas Eve, that’s what matters: “After the kids are in bed, I mix a Tom & Jerry and sit and get a little teary. At no other time do I feel more like my Dad than that moment. He wasn’t a happy-go-lucky guy, but he loved Christmas.”

This year, I went on my own chase to find Zachary a new-and-improved Tom & Jerry’s recipe. Is it perfect? Just like the one his Dad used to bring home? I’m not sure. But I’ll send it to him anyway. I’ll include a note and suggest we get together when I’m home for the holidays. And maybe this year we’ll actually make it happen. 

FROM AROUND THE WEB

Anne Zimmerman is the author of An Extravagant Hunger: The Passionate Years of M.F.K. Fisher and M.F.K. Fisher: Musings on Wine and Other Libations and the editor of Love In A Dish and Other Culinary Delights. Her work has appeared in Mix Magazine, Meatpaper, Diner’s Journal, Remedy Quarterly, Playboy and more. She lives in San Francisco.

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